* C Mike Reeves (Peterborough, Ont.). shown here with coach Stubby Clapp (Windsor, Ont.), has Canadian company behind the plate at the Bobby Mattick Training Center since Justin Atkinson (Surrey, BC) has been converted into wearing catching gear. Photos: Alexis Brudnicki. ....
Okay, maybe not exactly.
Reeves is 24 years old, and was selected by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 21st round of the 2013 draft out of Florida Gulf Coast University. The native of Peterborough, Ont., lived in Florida and finished up his degree in criminal justice over the off-season while working out in Gainesville. A left-handed-hitting catcher, Reeves got his start behind the dish over two decades ago, when he was just four years old.
Atkinson is 21 and hails from Surrey, BC. The Blue Jays took him with their 26th-round pick in 2011 out of North Surrey Secondary School. The right-handed hitter has learned four new positions since joining the organization, taking his spot behind plate this spring training after being converted from the infield during the fall instructional league.
The two Canadian backstops have spent a lot more time together recently, as Reeves hones his skills and Atkinson continues to learn.
“I took it upon myself to get better at catching this off-season,” the younger catcher said. “I went out a couple times a week with my high school team, the Langley Blaze, and caught as many [bullpens] as I could. The velocity wasn’t like it is here but the techniques of protecting myself – that’s what I worked on a lot. I felt like I was getting better every time. I was seeing the ball a lot better and I was obviously helping their pitchers get better and giving them feedback …
“The first couple of days here were pretty shaky. The velocity is a lot faster and I’m still trying to get my timing down. I’m hoping each day it gets better.”
Added Reeves: “He’s doing amazing actually. It’s really impressive. When I heard he was catching I thought, ‘He’s going to suck.’ But honestly when I saw him catch the ball, I thought, ‘Damn Atty, you’re pretty good.’”
Atkinson is definitely doing well, but not well enough to be a threat to his fellow Canuck.
“I’m at the bottom of the totem pole right now,” he said.
“Catching comes with time,” Reeves said. “Some of the best catchers weren’t always catchers. Russell Martin was an infielder. And [infielders] have really good hands. The transition is pretty much the same from the infield, except you’re in a squat.”
Atkinson added: “And you’ve got to hold it. My biggest thing was after I would catch the ball, I would want to put it in my [throwing] hand right away. But now I’ve got to hold it there. I just want to catch it and get rid of it.”
Reeves believes that Atkinson will continue to get the hang of it and keep getting better with more repetition behind the plate.
“A lot of people talk about how you have to have really good timing with hitting and stuff like that, but catching is the exact same way,” the Ontarian said to his BC counterpart. “You need the timing with the pitcher and everybody has their own cues, when they want to get ready, and once you figure that stuff out it gets easier.
“And the higher you go, the better pitchers you catch; it’s easier. They’re more around the zone and you don’t have young guys throwing 100 miles an hour, literally. It will get easier for you to catch.”
Atkinson has already made several adjustments to his game, and feels much stronger behind the plate than when he started at the position in September after a season of battling a wrist injury and playing the infield with the Lansing Lugnuts in the Midwest League.
“In instructs, I couldn’t really feel my thumb,” he said. “They made me a little guard thing and I still was catching balls wrong. But now, knock on wood, I haven’t really gotten hurt. I’m learning how to catch properly now.”
Catching bullpen sessions for the young Blaze hurlers throughout the winter months was a huge factor in aiding Atkinson’s progress.
“That actually helped a lot,” the 21-year-old said. “They don’t throw as hard so obviously I had a little bit more time to catch the ball properly. None of them really threw hard enough to thumb me. Today I got thumbed though … He was trying to throw way outside to the outside corner and he threw it to the outside to the left, so I got really crossed up.”
Reeves offered: “You’ve got to turn your glove up. You start with your glove up so it’s easier to get.”
While Atkinson has only experienced catching pitchers who throw with some velocity in the fall and again this spring, Reeves first experienced catching real velo when he was just four years old.
“My brother Jeff was 14 and I was four,” he said. “No gear. He says, ‘Squat down and be a catcher,’ and he’s chucking gas at me. Obviously I missed one, and it knocks out my first four front teeth. So I have my teeth in my hand and go up to my mom [Karen] and I say, ‘Look what Jeff did.’ She says, ‘Well it looks like next time you should catch the ball.’”
The tough love from Karen Reeves has turned the 24-year-old catcher into the professional athlete he is today, but there’s a small chance he might still be searching for a sympathetic reaction to some of his earlier injuries.
“I broke my thumb in college,” he said. “At Oklahoma State I got hit by a pitch and my thumb was literally 90 degrees [the wrong] way and the bone is popping out. My parents were watching on the Internet and they thought I got hit in the face, and the commentators didn’t really know.
“So as I’m being rushed off to the hospital I call my mom to get some sympathy. I said, ‘Mom I broke my thumb,’ and she just said, ‘Oh, well go get it fixed.’
“And then we were skating out on the pond, me and my brother, and he’s 10 years older than me. I was 16 and he’s 26 and I’m thinking I’m all tough, so I give my brother a little jab to the face, like a play fight. Well, something clicked with him and he just pummels me. My face is bleeding, I’ve got bruises, and I walk over to my mom and she’s mad at me for trying to take him on.”
Reeves finished last season with the Vancouver Canadians, trying to help the team on their playoff run after spending time between the Dunedin Blue Jays and Lugnuts earlier in the year. The squad fell just short of a fourth consecutive Northwest League championship, but the backstop enjoyed the time he got north of the border after a season of movement.
“I really learned my role,” Reeves said. “I’m going to be that fill-in guy – wherever they need a catcher I just go. Going to Vancouver wasn’t a demotion and neither was Lansing because they wanted me to get more reps. In Vancouver they wanted to win … and it was awesome. [Losing the final] sucked but going there and being able to compete in a championship game is so amazing. Obviously it wasn’t the result we wanted but it was a really good group of guys. It was one of the best teams I’ve been on actually.”
Heading into the upcoming season, the priority for Reeves is to stay present. He’s not worried about what happened last year or where he might start the season, and instead just sticking to the now.
“You can’t control the past and you can’t control the future,” he said. “Like getting sent down or getting sent up, I have no control over that, so there’s no point of spending time thinking about stuff like that. Like in Atty’s case, don’t look at other catchers and think about what they’re doing. Just worry about Atty, and everything else will take care of itself.”
After an off-season of working at the Vancouver airport, packing seafood cargo onto palettes for eight hours a day, Atkinson certainly is just worried about himself, the progress he’s made behind the dish, and what he needs to do to continue to get better on the diamond.
“I’m still trying to learn right now,” he said. “The receiving part is still getting there, and blocking is always a tough time, but it’s getting better.”